Most of This Won’t Matter to You in the Long Run

How looking at what you were doing on this day a year ago will give you perspective on right now

Illustration: Sergio Membrillas

Tuesday, July 14, 2020, was rough. My family’s usual childcare wasn’t available. The baby was on a nap strike. The longest stretch of uninterrupted time I got was in the minivan at night in my driveway with my laptop.

On days like that one, it can be easy to wallow in frustration. But then, sitting in the minivan, I tried a thought experiment: What, exactly, was I doing on this date a year ago? What was I frustrated about and worried about then?

Well, I knew where I was on July 14, 2019: Cape May, New Jersey, with my family. Thinking back, I remembered eating lobster outside and hiking to the beach through a nature preserve full of butterflies — an exquisite summer day.

But then I looked at my time log. I should note here that I do have an actual record of what I’ve done on past dates. I began tracking my time continuously in April 2015, and I now have more than five years of half-hour-by-half-hour data.

Looking at my log from July 14, 2019, I remembered that I’ve never gotten four children into a car and covered in sunscreen without some sort of drama. I was pregnant and hideously uncomfortable in the summer heat (to say nothing of my constant need for bathrooms, which the nature preserve lacked). My time log showed that I was up for an hour in the middle of the night. I remembered a paper shopping bag breaking in the rain later in the week, dumping everything in a puddle, and my laptop breaking down (the log featured a trip to the Apple Store to get it repaired). Looking back from 365 days later, I had pretty much forgotten about all of that, much as I’d stewed at the time.

Strategically revisiting your past puts the present in perspective. Looking back into mine reminded me that the day-to-day frustrations of life seldom register in the grand scheme of things.

While most people don’t have time logs to peruse, you might have old calendars (electronic or paper) or old emails that can serve as time capsules. Time’s erasure of annoyances is even more obvious in the inbox. My emails from the workdays around July 14, 2019, recount a host of issues that occupied me at the time, but don’t now: a meeting that kept getting rescheduled and never happened, a conference call for an event that never happened, a suggestion that I reach out to a group that might be interested in my work (I didn’t).

The only reason I would remember how unproductive I felt on July 14, 2020, is that I am writing about it here. Most of the emails I didn’t send wouldn’t have led to much, anyway.

Truly traumatic events will burn specifics into the brain. But much of life is neither spectacularly good or horrifically bad. We are often consumed by daily matters that just don’t matter in the long run. We don’t remember them with any specificity — even when we’re reminded of the day, the only memories that remain are gauzy, removed from the physical and mental annoyances of the moment.

On the next frustrating day, take a look at your calendar and your emails from a year ago. Remember that these woes will likely be forgotten in a year, let alone over a longer time frame. Try letting them go now.

Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management books including Off the Clock and 168 Hours. She blogs at LauraVanderkam.com.

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